in The Vault

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

This is part 2 in a 300 part series of Fangoria Magazine’s “Top 300 Horror Movies”. Here we go!

Why is it so damn hard to find a copy of The Abominable Dr. Phibes? For anyone who’s not a horror fan I’m sure the answer is “Because it’s called The Abominable Dr. Phibes.” Fair enough. It is a title that invokes the worst of b-movie shlock. Maybe a film you’d catch at 2:00 AM on a nostalgia channel or featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Yet there is a “Je ne sais quoi” to Phibes that is memorable. Or maybe it’s the fact that Phibes laid the groundwork for an iconic horror franchise and nobody talks about it.

The first ten, maybe even fifteen minutes of Phibes is great. The film opens Phantom of the Opera style with Phibes (Vincent Price) plucking away at Felix Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests” on a pipe organ in his spooky villain lair. I call it a villain lair because 1) It looks like it’s underground and 2) Phibes has a four-piece robot orchestra nearby. Good guys don’t have stuff like that. I should also mention that Phibes is a concert musician and theologian so that Doctorate is likely not in evil science. How he built all his robots and gadgets I have no clue. The credits end with Phibe’s performance but the music ain’t over yet. Phibes starts up his robot band and then waltzes with his silent partner in crime Vuvlania (Virginia North). Eventually, Phibes leaves and arrives at the house of Dr. Dunwoody (Edward Burnham), who’s in for a real pain in the neck.

Phibes unleashes vampires bats into Dunwoody’s bedroom. The bats in the film are obviously flying foxes but they do the trick and Dunwoody dies real good. What I enjoy about this is most of it is done with minimal dialogue. Not that Phibes could do much to change that as the character is mute. It’s bold that a film would enlist one of the finest voices in horror only to shut him up. Yet somehow it works.

The film gives us no breathing room before moving onto another murder set piece. Phibes arrives at one of those fancy schmancy masquerades you only see in British movies and meets a psychiatrist Dr. Hargreaves (Alex Scott). Phibes offers Hargreaves a frog helmet because apparently, this dumbass didn’t know it was a “masked affair”. Hargreaves makes his way through the crowd only to find the helmet won’t stop tightening. The helmet crushes his head a few minutes later in my personal favorite sequence in the film. Ha, a “Head Shrinker” for the Head Shrinker. I’m lovin’ it.

Then the film makes the dumb mistake that so many British horror films make. The film comes to a dead halt to introduce a stuffy British inspector (Peter Jeffrey) named Inspector Trout—because of course his name is Inspector Trout—who’s always a step behind the audience. We’re also given an explanation for Phibes heinous acts. In 1921, (the film is set in 1925 which is not obvious) Phibes’ wife Victoria Phibes dies during surgery. Dr. Phibes rushes to the hospital but gets in a severe car accident on the way and is thought dead. Four years later Phibes resurfaces to seek vengeance on the nine doctors he blames for his wife’s death.

A few questions. What kind of surgery requires nine doctors? Also, why did Phibes kill a psychiatrist? What the hell was that guy doing in the operating room? Apart from those two questions, I like the setup. Especially when it’s discovered Phibes is basing each kill off of one the Biblical plagues. Except gnats and flies are replaced with rats and bats. Here’s a breakdown of each plague and the outcome.

1. “Bats” Dr. Dunwoody is eaten alive by bats in his bedroom.

2. Frogs – Dr. Hargreaves head is crushed by a gear powered Frog helmet.

3. Blood – Phibes hooks up Dr. Longstreet (Terry Thomas) to a catheter and drains him of his blood while playing the violin… like a boss (shades come down. Deal with it.)

4. “Rats” – Dr. Kitaj (Peter Gillmore) is piloting a single-engine airplane for recreation and finds his cockpit filled with ravenous rats. He crashes and burns up good.

5. Livestock – Trout finds a Dr. Whitcombe (Maurice Kaufmann) at the mall. He tries to warn him of Phibes but a catapult emerges out of nowhere and shoots and impales Whitcombe with a… brass unicorn. Livestock? Unicorn? No time to overanalyze I gotta get through the rest of this list.

6. Boils – Professor Thornton is discovered to have been the first victim—killed offscreen—by bees before the beginning of the film.

7. Hailstorm – Phibes locks Dr. Hedgepath (David Hutcheson) in a limo, takes a gun that looks like a weapon from the 1960s Batman show and freezes Hedgepath to death with a snow gun. Cool.

8. Locusts – Phibes boils brussels sprouts into a green juice. He then sneaks around a hospital, cuts a hole in an upper room floor, drizzles juice onto a sleeping nurse, Nurse Allen (Susan Travers), and unleashes a swarm of locusts. The locusts are drawn to the vegetable juice and start eating away at the woman. When the cops find the Nurse a few hours later she has been reduced to a skeleton. Skeletons are hilarious. I love this one.

9. Death of the first-born son – After a slew of rats, bats, and brass unicorns Phibes is left with a single doctor in his crosshairs, Dr. Vesalius (the great Joseph Cotten). Saving his most punishing act for Vesalius, Phibes kidnaps the doctor’s son (Sean Bury) and locks him to an operating table. Vesalius then uses an x-ray of his son’s ribcage to locate a key to free him before he is killed by dripping acid.

What does this remind you of?

Not sure?

Saw. Think about it. A frail man and his loyal partner in crime (Jigsaw and Amanda Young) testing a doctor who failed to do everything he could. Even the x-ray with the location of the key is just like the Death Mask Trap with the skull x-ray from Saw II. Phibes’ traps were said to be inspired by Edgar Alan Poe but its clear where James Wan and Leigh Whannell got their inspiration. I’m not saying Saw is a knockoff or anything. It’s just weird that I’ve never heard either of them talk about The Abominable Dr. Phibes. What other secrets are them Saw boys keeping from us?

Anyways, Vesalius frees his son. Trout arrives, backs Vulvania into the acid, but fails to catch Phibes. So Phibes descends into a double-sized coffin with his dead wife and seals himself underground. Thus Phibes becomes the final plague himself “Darkness”. So it’s kind of like Se7en but with more gadgets and violin playing robots. Oh, also I forgot to mention that Phibes’ Beatles’ wig and pasty skin are torn off to reveal his actual gross face that was deformed in the car accident. Not that it’s a surprise considering Phibes’ shitty monster face is over all of this film’s promotional material. Monsters sell more tickets than Beatles’ wigs apparently.

The story wears thin with a predictable trap-explanation-trap formula but it has its moments of campy fun. One thing I will give props to is a classic performance by Price. Just the way he rolls his eyes or flashes a sinister grin makes me happy. Price had such presence and charisma on screen. I can’t help but wonder if this film would be remembered at all if it didn’t star a horror icon like Vincent Price. Even with Price, it’s a bitch to track down. It was part of a Scream Factory Box Set but that set is currently out of print. I found it on Amazon for almost $400 but you know, fuck that.

One question I want to address in all of my reviews of “Fangoria’s 300 Greatest Horror Movies” is “Is this film one of the 300 Greatest Horror Movies Ever Made?” My gut reaction is “No.” Phibes is a detailed film with a fun performance and a few good kills but it’s repetitive and too silly to be scary. A sequel was made the following year but there’s no way in Hell you could convince me to watch it. Not even if you poured brussel sprout juice all over my face and unleashed a swarm of flesh-eating locusts.

Goodnight everybody!